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Islamabad diary
- Friday, March 18, 2011 - From Print Edition

National dignity sold once again, crieth the prophets and pundits of the honour-cum-national-dignity armies as they give vent to their anger at the release, on the anvil of Islamic law, of the CIA operative, Raymond Davis.

But what exactly are they howling about? What item of national honour has been surrendered in the Davis affair? If they would suspend their outrage for a moment and consider the matter calmly – admittedly a tall order for ones so self-righteous – it is Pakistan which has had its way in the Davis affair, not the United States.

The US wanted Davis not to be arrested at all. And once he had been taken into custody all the pressure that Washington could harness and mount was directed at his immediate release on grounds of full diplomatic immunity. It wasn’t just US diplomats calling for this but President Obama too in a tele-speech devoted to Davis. It couldn’t have got any higher than this.

A dictatorial setup with its one-man point of contact, in the person of the military saviour, might not have withstood this pressure. But Pakistani democracy, with all its imperfections and dysfunctional characteristics, was able to absorb it, albeit in a haphazard manner, and convey to the Americans a simple message: that far from solving anything their ham-fisted attempts to browbeat Pakistan were complicating the issue. It was in everyone’s interest to allow passions to cool.

That is exactly what happened. The Americans had to back off, not Pakistan. And the end deal, to the extent we can read its surface contents, is very much on Pakistani terms. It was a court verdict which allowed Davis to go free, as we had always insisted should be the case, and the families of the victims instead of being hung out to dry have been well compensated.

However high the horse of national anger we wish to mount, two million dollars and some more of blood money, added to the prospect of American visas, is not something to scoff at in our parts. Callous and cynical as it may sound, people get killed in Pakistan, wantonly and cruelly, all the time and they get nothing. The victims of drone strikes in FATA and target killings in Karachi certainly get nothing. The armies of the righteous crying coercion and duress should try to be a bit more honest on this score. With 20 crore rupees changing hands the coercion case is not an easy one to prove.

And consider the irony of it all: the deal concluded strictly in accordance with Islamic law, the changes in the penal code introduced by Gen Ziaul Haq, allowing pardon in murder cases in lieu of blood money. The CIA relying on Islamic law to get one of their own out of Pakistan: it can’t get any thicker than this, the flavour of the sauce only heightened by the fact that in the forefront of the angry protesters is Zia’s progeny, the Jamaat-e-Islami. Surely the Jamaat is not about to say that the blood money law, rooted in Islam, should be repealed? And if it is on the statute books how are the Americans debarred from using it?

To the mother of all our agencies, the ISI, must go an unqualified salute: it has played a masterful game. It didn’t quite orchestrate the initial outpouring of anger against the Davis killings but in some of the first rallies in Lahore veterans and connoisseurs of Lahore unrest could detect the outline of its tender footprints. In Pakistan many things which appear to be spontaneous are far from being that.

At the other end of the spectrum was the tough stand taken by the Foreign Office, and the then foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, on the question of Davis’s immunity. Qureshi went out on a limb and said publicly, with a fair bit of grandstanding, that Davis did not have the blanket immunity the Americans were claiming on his behalf. Now few people would ever accuse the Foreign Office of too much independence. So the question arises whence this supply of extra vitamins? In this unaccustomed intrepidity too conspiracy experts could read the guiding hand of Aabpara, ISI Hqs.

Now what was the ISI trying to do? Not declaring war upon the United States, perish the very thought, or casting doubts on the American connection. It was closing all avenues around the Davis affair, drawing a circle of wagons around it, and leaving only one road open: leading to Aabpara and General Headquarters (GHQ).

In the first flush of emotion, the Americans tried to deal exclusively through the federal government and the interior minister, the inevitable Rehman Malik, who conveyed to the Americans that the Punjab government had been informed about Davis’s immunity. This was a bluff because nothing of the kind had been communicated.

Through their Consul General in Lahore the Americans also tried putting pressure on the Punjab government but nothing came of it. The matter was already before the courts and the question of Davis’s immunity had not been determined.

And this immunity was not forthcoming because the Foreign Office – at whose buttressing, one can only surmise – had taken a stand at odds with the wishes of the Presidency. In this reading of events Qureshi was acting less as a defender of national honour, as he has tried to portray himself, but as a pawn in the hands of our secret masters. If the ISI confers medals on useful instruments Qureshi surely deserves one.

It must have taken some time for all this to sink into the minds of our American friends. They were seeking a shortcut but were not getting it because all approaches were blocked by the chess game being played from Aabpara.

So perforce and not gladly the Americans had to opt for discretion over valour, behind-the-scenes contacts over Yankee-style bluster. When did this happen? No doubt when they had swallowed some of their anger, always a tough act to perform for an imperial power, and when they had gone over their maps of Pakistan afresh and seen how the ground lay.

What was the ISI, or rather the army, trying to prove? That the key to decisions relating to war and peace were still in GHQ and Davis’s fate would also be decided there rather than any power-impoverished corridor in Islamabad. Better than anyone else the Americans know how things operate in Pakistan. But thanks to Raymond Davis they had to go through a refresher course on this subject again.

There must be smiles all around in Aabpara and GHQ, all the more so when most of the anger sparked by Davis’s dollar-aided flight from Pakistan will be directed at the political class. The military have long specialised in having their cake and eating it too.

As a number of press reports have suggested – stories in which too the long hand of Aabpara can be detected – the ISI has had serious complaints about expanded CIA activities in Pakistan. It is not too farfetched to suppose that the Davis affair was an opportunity for these concerns to be aired and addressed.

If the CIA in Pakistan was running wild, here was a chance to rein it in. If Aabpara is given to emotion, Davis’s name will be taken with emotion in those hallowed precincts.

Where does this leave the holy knights of national dignity and honour, threatening fire and brimstone and choking at the mouth because Davis – through an application of Islamic law, let us never forget – has flown the coop? Did these chumps really think that something as vital and life-saving for the Pakistani establishment as the American connection would be allowed to be jeopardised for the sake of an individual? This is not how the real world functions.

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